Chico Hamilton:: El Chico (1965)

You know Chico Hamilton and you don’t; he’s upfront with purpose but the mystery is preserved. (we overheard someone say something about his writing the jingle tune to Jello, but it’s unconfirmed.)

There was always a wide variety of instrumentation in Chico’s ensembles (featuring unorthodox Jazz instruments like cellos, guitars, and trombones), and, as would make sense from an award-winning drummer, rhythm was always at the forefront of the rearrangements and reimaginings. Miles Davis seems like a relevant correlative here, but Chico had a very different thing going on.

Known for a sprawling 50-album-plus discography of his own albums—and as a side-person cutting his teeth with Lester Young, Chet Baker and Lena Horn—Chico might be best pigeon-holed as one of the greatest interpreters of American song. Chico’s proclivity for eclecticism had an interesting impact on his arrangements: a blend of bossa, swing, and rumba was cast over old songs and classic standards. No album is more illustrative of this characteristic swirl than the Impulse!–released El Chico from 1965. 

El Chico takes Hamilton’s swinganova reworkings of the old songbook to new heights, with the added sound of Hungarian psychedelic-jazz troubadour Gabor Szabo’s acoustic guitar added to the fray alongside members of Hamilton’s somewhat commercially successful quintet: Albert Stinson on upright; Jimmy Cheatham on Trombone; Sadao Watanabe on alto sax/flute; and guest percussionists Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja. The results of this confluence are romping and ragged: at one point on “Conquistadores” (basically a studio jam), the percussionists can be heard egging Szabo on with yells and yips while the whole thing reaches out into the sunset ether. There are a lot of fades on the album, but it holds together as a sort of cinematic, latin-inflected noir which is humanistic and modern in the same breath. (Watanabe’s boppish lines are often the urbane foil to the tribal rhythms underneath, while Hamilton’s own drum set is mapped on a driving boogaloo beat that is bouncy but driving.) 

The repertoire on El Chico contains four Hamilton originals, each on-brand with a certain melodic and chordal language that the drummer-composer would explore on more conceptual late-career albums like the funk-inflected Nomad (1980), and the long-form crossover success Peregrenations (Blue Note, 1975). “El Moors” ends with a drum feature, speeding up into mayhem, before returning to the modal, eastern-tinged main theme, while “Helena” feels like the soundtrack to a dance sequence in a Polanski film—it’s no surprise that Chico and his quintet starred in the 1957 crime drama Sweet Smell of Success and scored it as well. 

The covers on El Chico wind the obscure into a rarefied groove space. The group’s Bossa-Nova version of “People”, originally recorded by Barba Streisand for the Broadway show Funny Girl, was probably Chico’s most signature track, with Szabo’s raw, bent strings twisting it to and fro. “Strange” was a common-sounding melody popularized by Nat King Cole; “This Dream” was boiled down to a samba-ish vehicle for improvisation, with Szabo’s fretboard work stealing the show. The real curveball is “Marcheta”, which was written as a Mexican Love Song for a Hollywood film by one of Johnny Mercer’s favorite collaborators, Victor Schertzinger: here it’s reworked into a repeated form which moves between unison playing and a heart-wrenching chord progression while Watanabe floats on top, this time with a flute. 

The record is in some ways a sign of things to come with Mr. Hamilton: the addition of Charles Lloyd on flute and saxophone a few years later would explode the group into fame and later disabandement as each of the younger players—after being discovered and mentored by Chico—moved on to become a star with their own groups, sometimes with the maestro himself steering the drum chair (Gabor Szabo’s Spellbinder for instance). 

This is effortless music with pulse and an eye towards the unknown. | t csatari

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